Ray Charles Robinson (September 23, 1930 June 10, 2004) was an American musician. One of the first performers to fuse R&B and Gospel Music to create the Soul genre in The '50s, he also exerted a major influence on the development of the Rock & Roll genre.
Losing his sight to an infection at a young age and educated in music at a school for the blind, Ray became a talented musician and multi-instrumentalist who got his start singing and playing piano and organ with country and blues bands in the 1940s. Although he recorded a few minor hits, his big break came when he was signed to Atlantic Records in the early 1950s and recorded songs such as "Mess Around" (written by Atlantic co-founder and president Ahmet Ertegun), "I Got A Woman", "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" and "What'd I Say", which combined raw, passionate gospel energy with boogie-influenced music and secular lyrics. While this music provoked some controversy at the time, these songs are now recognised as some of the first soul songs and established Ray as the pioneer of a whole new genre.
Subsequently, he joined a major label (ABC-Paramount) and decided to explore new sounds, including Jazz, Pop and especially Country, which earned him some of his biggest hits, including "Georgia On My Mind", "Hit the Road Jack" and "I Can't Stop Loving You" (a song which is now credited for helping to popularise country outside of its traditional audiences). Although he struggled with drug addiction and sporadic success after the 1960s, interest in his music was renewed thanks to his appearance in The Blues Brothers in 1980, reinforced by being the musical spokesperson for a popular TV ad campaign for Diet Pepsi, and he remained popular until his death from cancer in 2004.
Ray's influence on other singers and musicians cannot be understated; Frank Sinatra called him "the only true genius" in popular music, Billy Joel was hugely influenced by his piano playing and singing, the members of The Beatles all expressed their admiration for his achievements, with Paul McCartney crediting him as his reason for getting into music, and his song "What'd I Say" was allegedly the first song Mick Jagger performed as a member of The Rolling Stones.
His early life, rise to fame, dalliances with drug addiction and involvement in the civil rights movement are chronicled in the Academy Award-winning Biopic Ray, released only a few months after his death. He was set to attend the premiere had he lived. As it was, he was still able to attend a private screening with the crew.
Albums by Ray Charles that have their own page:
- Blind Black Guy: If a black character is blind, expect them to be a parody of Ray (or possibly Stevie Wonder, who himself emulated Charles' look in his Little Stevie days).
- Blind Musician: In some ways the Trope Maker for blind musicians being thought of as mainly keyboardists, since most of the prominent blind musicians of previous generations (like Blind Lemon Jefferson) were guitarists.
- Break-Up Song: "Hit the Road, Jack", done with The Raelettes. (Ray didn't write it - that would be Percy Mayfield - but his version is the most well-known.)
- The Cameo: The opening titles for season 6 of the sitcom Designing Women was Charles performing "Georgia on My Mind" while the cast sits around his piano.Ray Charles: "I thought that was pretty good!"
- Cool Shades: His Iconic Item.
- The Cover Changes the Meaning: The lyrics to "Georgia on My Mind" were originally written for composer Hoagy Carmichael's sister, despite it being ambiguous enough to refer to the state or a woman. After Ray made it famous as a dedication to the state of Georgia, it became the official state song.
- Dance Sensation: Everybody's doing the "Mess Around".
- Erudite Stoner: After kicking his heroin habit, Charles coped by smoking weed every day.
- Greatest Hits Album: He has several conventional greatest hits and best of sets, but several of his early albums were effectively hits collections as a result of the record industry practices in the 1950s. For example, his first "studio" album (released in 1957) incorporated hit songs he'd recorded as far back as 1953.
- Homesickness Hymn: When Charles, a Georgia native, covered this song of yearning for his home state in 1960, it quickly became one of his signature songs. However, it took on a new significance and poignance, especially when Charles performed the song before the Georgia General Assembly as a symbol of reconciliation after years of activism and struggle stemming from the Civil Rights Movement. After the performance, the Assembly adopted the song as the official State Song of Georgia.
- Improv: Ray made up "What'd I Say" on the spot to fill time at the end of a 1958 performance. His instructions to the Raelettes and the backing musicians were basically "I'm going to fool around; y'all follow me."
- Intercourse with You: "What'd I Say", with salacious lyrics in the first half and a second half that's basically "Immodest Orgasm: The Song".Hey baby, don't you treat me wrong
Come and love your daddy all night long
- Location Song: "Georgia On My Mind" is a homage to this state and has in fact become its official anthem.
- Live Album: 1959's Ray Charles at Newport stands alongside James Brown's Live at the Apollo as one of the best live recordings of the early R&B/Soul era.
- New Sound Album: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music was a considerable departure from his previous musical recordings and made country music acceptable in circles where people originally only liked soul and R&B.
- Ode to Intoxication: "Let's Go Get Stoned"
- One-Man Song: "Hit the Road, Jack".
- Patriotic Fervor: Known for his version of "America the Beautiful".
- Product Placement: One well-known commercial he did for Diet Pepsi involved an off-camera practical joker switching his soda with Diet Coke. Of course, Ray can't see the difference, but he can certainly taste it. Pepsi admitted the commercial was taking a risk by potentially being seen as poking fun at a handicap, but it went over very well.
- Production Foreshadowing: His final single for Atlantic was a Cover Version of Hank Snow's 1951 Country Music classic "I'm Movin' On". Pleased with how it turned out, Charles decided to do a whole album of country songs, which led to several follow-ups and even a period in The '80s when he temporarily switched to country full-time (scoring a #1 hit with "Seven Spanish Angels", a duet with Willie Nelson).
- Riddle for the Ages: The cause of his blindness was never conclusively determined.
- Self-Backing Vocalist: That's Ray himself doing falsetto harmonies on "I Believe to My Soul", because he wasn't happy with how the Raelettes were singing the backing vocals.
- Self-Deprecation: He always had a sense of humor about his blindness. Examples include hanging a poster upside down in The Blues Brothers, having a cameo in Spy Hard as a bus driver, and doing a radio ad for some fast food sandwich saying that he felt like going out for one "so you might want to stay off the road."
- Self-Titled Album
- "Sesame Street" Cred:
- Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll: Had a serious heroin problem before cleaning up in the 70s. His main vices after that became marijuana and gin, even dropping some in his morning coffee. Liver failure is what ended up killing him."If I'd known I was gonna live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself."
- Singer Namedrop:
- In "Don't You Know", also mentioning a couple of his earlier songs as well.Say, have you heard, baby?
Ray Charles is in town!
Let's mess around till the midnight hour
See what he's puttin' down.
- "I Believe to My Soul"Last night you were dreaming and I heard you say
"Oh, Johnny" when you know my name is Ray.
- In "Don't You Know", also mentioning a couple of his earlier songs as well.
- Stage Name: He dropped his last name so as not to be confused with the boxer "Sugar Ray" Robinson.note
- Sunglasses at Night: Justified, considering that he was blind.